Should I Read This Book?October 4, 2008
I read about 70-100 books a year. Some of them are given to me to read, some I must read, others I want to read and still others I think I should read (Note: I “guilt” easily when it comes to books. All you have to say is “Have you read this one Mike? Why not?, and I’m pretty much going to give it a look. After all, that’s what Google Books are for, ne c’est pas?). But there are those dangerous moments when I pick up a book and I wonder, “should I read this?” Reading a book for me is like committing to a very short but meaningful relationship with the author at ‘that’ stage in their life. “That” meaning, the stage they were in when they wrote the book.
For instance, I love “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle and almost anything else she wrote during that season of her life. My guess is that I would have loved being around her during that time. But when I pick up the moody, contemplative “Certain Women” by the same author, I am sure I would have kept my distance from her. J.R.R. Tolkien said that every author has one good book in them, perhaps two. Brave words from a man who wrote more than two books. Of course, this was said to C.S. Lewis upon the publication of his fifth book, so it may have been designed with something less than objectivity in mind.
Here is my question: How do you determine if you’re going to make that minor commitment to read a book, especially non-fiction? I found this list by Merlin Mann fascinating. Then there is Marshall McLuhan’s rule: that he turns to page 69 and if he likes what he reads, he keeps reading. One well-known author gives the book 50 pages to hook him and then on page 51, if there is no interest, he stops reading. One more obsessive writer says that you should read the first 70 pages and subract from that the years of your age over 60 or add your age for those under 60. So an 80 year old will only read the first 30 pages and a youngster of 20 should read the first 90 pages to determine if they want to read on. The theory is that younger readers need to be less discriminating because they don’t know what they like yet. Older readers have enough experience to tell if a book is crap.
I will add three more criteria to the list. First, as I glance through a new book, I flip through it, looking for particular clues. In particular, are they talking about a previously unwritten subject? This was my main criteria for picking up Marilyn Yalom’s “The Birth of the Chess Queen: A History“. I never thought that the pieces of a chess board may have been introduced at different times in history. I was spellbound by her writing. No one had ever written about the chess Queen, and if anyone tried after this, they will owe so much to Yalom. It is also why I bought Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan“. He speaks to a philosophical issue from the perspective of a Middle Easterner…and the subject is the unpredictability of life. I knew I had to have it.
The second criteria is easier. As I stand in Barnes and Noble, I read the Introduction. You can do the same thing with most books at Amazon.com or in Google Books. If the writer introduces the subject and grabs your attention with its importance, it is a book worth reading. If he simply touts his credentials, explains his perspective, or defends his right to write, I don’t buy it.
Finally, has the author devoted part of his own life to this subject? That is to say, is this just a writing assignment or has the author a concerted interest in the subject? The books of Tracy Kidder come to mind. When he writes a book, he buries himself in the subject, allowing it to change him as well as his readers. Even so, he remains objective enough to write critically on each subject. For instance, his book “Among Schoolchildren” was written after spending ten months in a third grade class in Connecticut. He knew every student, every parent and all the back-stories. He loved the children and appreciated the teacher, but also told the regretful elements of the tale. In “Mountains Beyond Mountains” he chronicles the unique life of Dr. Paul Farmer, one of the world’s leading physicians in the field of Tuberculosis in developing countries. This doesn’t sound exciting, but you can’t stop reading it once you start. Kidder is that good and that devoted.
Other authors worth reading do the same. Annie Dillard spent a better part of a year journaling the backwoods in preparation to write “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Richard Ben Cramer spent three years documenting the life of Joe Dimaggio for “Dimaggio: A Hero’s Life“. Cramer’s depth of discovery brings us closer to Joltin’ Joe, Marilyn, his San Francisco roots and Joe’s vaunted fear of running out of money. You also realize that Cramer took on this project because he loves baseball and admired Dimaggio. But that didn’t stop him from pointing out flaws in Dimaggio that others didn’t know. In order to determine if the author has paid a price, just look up some Amazon reviews and see what others have said about the book. If it looks like the author churned out the book, don’t bother. If they lived the book before writing it, consider it.
UPDATE: If all else fails, go to this website where they do the work for you. But I think it only applies to fiction